The second problem is that it is in CowParade’s commercial interest to skirt controversy and nourish the feel-good factor. Thus the “maternal, nurturing and friendly,” quality of the cow is built up, while the meat property is played down. (Director David Lynch’s gory half-eaten cow was pulled from the New York CowParade, and PETA’s designs were rejected preemptively.) Even so, the cows are not universally loved: in Edinburgh, a cow painted with the Scottish flag was smashed to bits in front of the Scottish Parliament; in Prague a cow that referenced a Russian tank memorial was beaten full of holes; and in Sweden, a cow with a tire around its middle in imitation of the tire-belted goat in Robert Rauschenberg’s famous combine Monogram (owned by Stockholm’s Moderna Museet) was kidnapped by a group demanding that “the cows be declared Non-Art and that all the cows, before 12:00 August 23rd, leave our streets. We also demand walls where we Stockholmers can paint and practice our freedom of expression.” The kidnappers were offered their own cow to paint as a kind of ransom, but preferred to express themselves by beheading their hostage cow on video (no points for tastefulness or originality there, either).

These events suggest that the CowParade cows are no longer the empty bovine slates they were back in 1999. In Chicago, the cows traded on their lack of locally specific meaning, a quality that made them both silly and universally adaptable. But eleven years on, those same cows have been “branded” (in the corporate meaning of the word) as emblems of the CowParade, an entity both commercially specific and geographically diffuse. So while these various CowParades may give us none of the things we expect from good public art, these days they actually have a lot to say. Like Nielsen ratings, they show us what the broader public finds entertaining in short spans. And if they don’t reveal much about real cows or about the real patch of ground on which they stand, they do illuminate something important: a new global cultural fabric in which public space, private money, shameless promotion, and genuine philanthropy are tightly interwoven. And they make clear the fact that this fabric functions as effectively in the socialized democracies of Northern Europe as in the Chicagoan capital of ideological free-marketeers, or in capitalist-communist China. If the cows have any “art” content, any “truth” to share, it is this: in the age of globalization, all the world is a cow town.